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Libyan Writer Ghoma

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Tuesday, 24 July, 2007


By: Ghoma

The Quad: All the buildings are organised clearly with oversight around the central park

        A look to the model of the new project for the "Government District" in Tripoli will refer the reader to many references, both political and architectural, among these latter the so-called "equipped axis," proposals that consisted of meandering swaths of activities and services; and which had made some buzz in Italian architectural culture, for a while in the 1960's, with some echoes also in G.B., in particular in some proposals by the Archigram Group. But the idea, politically, goes back to the 17thcentury, and the Sun King, Louis XIV, with his now famous, Versailles, where the administrative town -made up of the king's palace, government buildings and a huge park- was centered, prospectively, on the king's chamber. From the King's Palace the primary axis departed and which intersected further down with another axis, and both theoretically would extend to infinity, structuring in addition to government buildings a plethora of landscape elements and sculptural monuments. The complex had originated, by fiat, from one person, and as such, its organization felt, likewise, this emanation from one center radiating into multiple avenues. Direct mention was also been made -by the designers of Libyan Government- to the mid-20th century Lucio Costa's and Oscar Niemeyer's Brasilia's linear, and yet, more complex, dynamic, and richer, government district.

        Dictators as absolute monarchies see history as a clay in their hands to shape and give form to! What better than to leave some of those megalomaniacal visions of grandeur on the ground, in a city? Louis XIV did exactly that when he moved his government out of Paris and commissioned architects, Le Vaux and Le Notre, to design Versailles as the new seat of France's imperial power. And so did Tzar Peter the Great when he decided to move Russia closer to Western Europe by designing, ex-novo, a whole new capital city on the western fringes of his sprawling empire: St. Petersburg! Since then history has become replete with such examples of one man's or few of them deciding what the rest have to live by. Though history, as one Russian, Leo Tolstoy, put it, is an anonymous collective process that cannot be led or even understood by a single Napoleon at the top, sometimes lends its workings to strange logic and tortuous paths!

        The still unsolved puzzle of history is how some screwballs can manipulate it without understanding its workings. It's true sometimes they did accomplish great deeds (Versailles and St. Petersburg) without, apparently, themselves having a clue or the faintest idea to what they were doing, but having great talents around them had perhaps helped carriy the whole enterprise to fruition with some success. However, in addition to big purse, commonsense expects and reason dictates, that a big undertaking must be matched by a likewise Big Idea. Unless one thinks designing a seat of a government is no big deal, rather a mundane every day affair, then it needs an idea(s), at least, as big to direct its conception and gestation. Designing an imprint on a 230 hectares (568 acres), with grossly 655,000 square meters of built up spaces, is not something that happen everyday and most likely will condition both the government and the city for the foreseeable future.

        Contrary to an "utilitarian project"such as the Water Pipeline, though perhaps its costs were higher! where the choices were limited to a few options, actually between two processes, either bring the water from the desert or process it from the sea. On the other side, the choices of what, where, when, and how to plan and design a Government Seat are as limitless as the imagination of the people and/or the resources of the country. Therefore, only a relatively prolonged and informed debate will bring these possibilities to the fore and would give some bones to the choices heretofore to be taken. The debate will open with a series of questions: Is it the right time to embark on such a project? Is there or can be obtained a consensus on what, where, and how to plan and build? Where is the theoretical and factual center of the country -where most of the population, resources, etc. reside- and thus is the best location for such a Center? Is it better to add to an already existing, if not exhausted, city or to seek some new venues? What kind of government we've and what kind we envisioned it to be: A bloated and mean or a slim and lean one? What size a government should be, and what's the best ratio of employees to population? What are the administrative, economic, political, etc. subdivisions of the country and are they working or need modifications? How administrative activities are distributed both vertically and horizontally, among the different departments and between national, regional, and local? How power is structured and what are its operational components (executive, legislative, judiciary) and what are the mechanics that govern their relationships and workings? And so on with such questions. The more detailed they get the more complicated and technical they become: what's the best way to organize a bureaucracy and how the information revolution will influence its numbers and workings? Et cetera.

        Planners and designers are no gods. Thus the more they know about the place and its features and characteristics the more likely their solutions to its problems get closer to expectations. Beside the program and general demands, designers, like every creative mind, have to grapple and come to terms with what makes a place unique, "its genius loci," and what makes its people who they are. In other words what's the one or few major ideas that would describe and define the place and make its people tick. And so it goes. History has not described in detail the extent of the pains and agonies architects, as Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, Lucio Costa, O. Niemeyer, etc. must have had gone through in trying to grasp the spirit of the place and the souls of its people, to comprehend, if not to come to terms, of what constituted and makes a place what it's and what made its people who they were. [Though all these architects belonged to the Modern Movement in architecture which believed, among other things, in the neutrality of the location and the universality of solutions...]. Such questions and ponderings were not unique to the planners and architects of Chandigarh, Decca, etc. but were posed by every other planner or architect, who was lucky enough or plainly doomed, to have been asked to imagine and then draw a large stretch of space to house humans and their activities.

        But the most important issue when designing a "Government District" is to look inside the country, so to speak, to rough up some intangible intents to what is meant by the soul of a "nation' and the "spirit of its place"? What constituted "Libyaness"? What's unique about Libyans and how is Libya different from any other place? They may seem simple, even hooey questions, but just like children's questions, their simplicity hides unfathomable depths; the more one tries to answer them the more one is pulled into deeper and deeper complexities. The answers to some of these questions may come fuzzy and may not lend themselves to an easy operational use but the little that comes out will be helpful to those who're trying to project human desires, aspirations, wishes, as well as actual needs and capabilities on the ground and on the land.

        The confusion that's typical of the "Jamahiriya system" can be clearly seen also in the winning scheme. In its lack of center, focal points, dramatic moments, and symbolic gathering places. No Louis XIV's chamber or Niemeyer's Parliament Complex -not to mention his breathtaking National Cathedral. The Wernik's scheme was clearly structured on anonymity, lack of identity, and universality. The scheme can be imagined to fit anywhere and nowhere in particular. There's nothing here to make it specific for Libya or for a place named Tripoli. Furthermore, no actual or symbolic effort was made to give it, some sort of hierarchy or organizing elements that would act as a pivot around which other routine and less symbolically charged and functionally important activities and their buildings gather or emanate. The Parliament building is nothing exceptional about it, more a boxy large assembly hall, located to block the 'Central Park' which theoretically and practically, could, if needed, restart again on the other side. The same could be said for the two arms of the ministries blocks, one is blocked by the hotel, but could reemerge on the other side of it and extend as far as the airport, some10 or more kilometers away. As to the "Office of the General Secretary of the General People's Committee, Office of the Coordinator of the People's Leadership" is a regular office building, and a mediocre one, of no exceptional merits or characteristic distinguishing features either. No presence or mention of a Head-of-State or Superior Court Buildings! Instead, the scheme is framed by a mosque on one side and a slab of a tall hotel-building on the other. Why the presence of these two buildings? Both buildings, for God and Momot!- are for services which don't strictly and necessarily belong to the bureaucracy in particular. The mosque could have been broken into smaller units and inserted between buildings or into the buildings themselves or be located on the side somewhere as the hotel itself. The hotel has no function of being there and should have been left out of the scheme and relegated to the adjacent areas where plenty of other ancillary services will spring. Its prominence should have been given to either the Prime Minister's and Council of Ministers Office and meeting hall, or to the general Secretariat functions and buildings.

        One can only imaging how nightmarish must have been to those asked to prepare and write a program for such hodge-podge of unstructured and confusing system of "government". It must also be frustrating designing for something which one cannot understand. As such, the winning scheme may be the best of the crop, but still, in the best, a mediocre solution. Nothing is there worth to be mentioned the architectural history books. Even the so-called "Energy Farm" wouldn't, at this point, make it a credible and smart solution. Devil is in the detail. How it'll be carried out. It'll depend on its implementation and functioning. Why then this proposal has won? Maybe because the others were worse! Or, maybe the jury was rigged? Or, most likely, nobody cared enough what Libya should or would have for a government center?

        For, arranging boxes in a row is evidently no substitute for facing hard questions. A box + another box will be always only a bunch of boxes, though bigger, taller or lager boxes. The confusion and lack of clarity was due to the non-clarity of the positions and roles of the Head-of-State, Parliament, and the rest of the bureaucracy. Not to forget the presence and role of Religion to the state. What are the different roles and relationships between, the Head-of-State, (the executive) Parliament (legislative) and Government (bureaucracy) in general? Is the state a secular republic or a state with a specific religion? Has the Jamahiryia a head of state or is it some headless plop? One wishes some of these confusions were clarified and some answers were found before asking designers to come up with physical solutions to their answers. For the solution clearly has suffered from the shortcomings of all these and more. Not facing a problem is no solution to it. Libya has still to face such vexing questions and in answering them perhaps will find something about itself. Until then, no clear, well-thought about, and well-structured design to its government is possible. It can delude itself, it can stick its head in the sand and pretend otherwise, but still what Libya wants is not there yet.


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